Assessing Neighborhood Sustainability: From Coast to Coast

Global Green USA's Green Urbanism team works in partnership with local governments and other public agencies that are ready to “do” sustainability. With the help of a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities Program, our team is providing free sustainable neighborhood design consultations to eight cities across the country in 2014. Almost six month into the year, we asked Green Urbanism Program Associate Tim Bevins to share his insights and experience assessing neighborhood sustainability—from coast to coast.

Tim Bevins Global Green USA

1. This year, you’re conducting Sustainable Neighborhood Assessments in eight cities across the country. This involves three-day site visits to each of the communities, plus comprehensive recommendations for infrastructure and policy changes.

- Which cities have you visited so far?

So far this year, we’ve conducted our Sustainable Neighborhood Assessments in Santa Monica, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Westerly, RI and Long Beach, NY. Moving forward, we will be working in Dubuque, IA; Oak Forest, IL; Chippewa-Cree Tribe, MT and Long Beach, CA over the coming months.

2. How does your work in a city like Los Angeles differ from, say, Hurricane Sandy-affected Westerly?

While the core tenets of what makes a neighborhood sustainable remain constant throughout the nation, there is a sense of urgency in these Sandy-affected communities that is palpable. Unlike less exposed cities, these coastal communities are significantly exposed and vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges.

Given this reality, we try to structure each of our recommendations with an underlying base of resiliency. The goal is to develop a community’s ability to withstand and recover from major disruptions such as Hurricane Sandy as quickly as possible.

3. During the site visits, you take a guided tour of the neighborhood and meet with various stakeholders.

- What do you look at during the neighborhood tour?

GUP SNA tour long beachWe look at the key defining characteristics of the community, all through the lens of sustainability—identifying which features contribute to, and which detract from this end goal. Using the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Neighborhood Development system as our reference document, we’re able to tease out what’s working as well as identify areas of opportunity.

Some of the neighborhood attributes we assess are levels of walkability, what type of cycling infrastructure is in place, how stormwater is managed, and if structures are built or retrofitted following green building and design best practices. It is important to note that having exceptional representation in any one of these categories is not enough—it’s the cumulative effect of all of these elements that makes a neighborhood truly sustainable.

- What are some of the different things you hear from the community stakeholders?

The common thread we see from community to community, regardless of geographic location or particular environmental challenge, is a connection to and concern for the long-term viability of their neighborhood. Depending on the particular challenges a neighborhood happens to be facing, we will hear a range of comments, such as their desire for more walkable streets (and things to walk to), concerns about how the community can adapt to rising sea levels, and a desire for retaining their community’s unique character while taking steps towards sustainability to ensure long-term viability.

4. Green Urbanism Program Director Walker Wells has called urban systems one of the “21st Century’s most crucial challenges.”

- How do these assessments address that?

While cities do indeed present one of the most significant challenges to the 21st century, they simultaneously represent some of the greatest incubators of thought and progress. Meaning that, despite the fact that they are extremely complex, incredibly dynamic and constantly in flux, we can use cities as laboratories for social, economic and environmental progress.

Our work addresses this in a very tangible way by demonstrating that successful communities can also be paradigms of change; that by working towards sustainability, benefits can also be felt in terms of community cohesiveness, health and other externalities.

5. At the conclusion of each site visit, you present recommendations for both physical and policy changes.  

- Can you give some examples of your recommendations?

Global Green sustainable neighborhood assessmentOne example that stands out in recent memory is in the Sandy-affected community of Westerly, Rhode Island. The community identified a significant lack of connectivity in pedestrian and cycling connectivity between the east and west ends of their neighborhood. This gap is also home to one of the community’s key environmental assets, Winnapaug Pond. Concurrently, a significant amount of community attention and discussion had been given to connecting Westerly to this natural resource to capitalize on it’s draw as an eco-tourism destination.

The resulting recommendation advised the construction of a mile-long mixed-use bicycle and pedestrian trail to serve both as a neighborhood connector as well as method for tourists to access this beautiful natural asset.

6. After you’ve completed the Sustainable Neighborhood Assessment and provided the recommendations, then what?

We track the progress each community makes on our recommendations for a period of 18 months. We feel that this timeframe allows a fair window for some efforts to take effect before an additional review is done. During this time, we’re available to the communities to help point them in the direction of further resources or guidance.

7. If you could make one sustainability-oriented change in every city across the country, what would it be?

Given the caveat I mentioned earlier—that sustainability is the sum of its parts, and it is the effort of many distinct elements working in concert that contribute to a socially, economically and environmentally healthy neighborhood—one of the most critical sustainability-oriented investments a city can make in my mind is in more robust cycling infrastructure.

By investing across the spectrum of cycling related improvements—protected lanes, better lane striping, storage, signage, lighting—and distributing these improvements throughout the city, the community is able to create a safe, viable alternative to private vehicular travel. This effort has many benefits, not the least of which is signaling to both cyclists and motorists that this is a method of travel that should be protected, accommodated and encouraged.